Pastoral by Thomas Eccleshare: A Review

Nature is starting to strike back.  Humanity has, for too long, bounced from chain store to chain store engulfing everything in it’s path.  Everyone is leaving the city; even ‘the fat’.  Voles are hanging out in paperchase, plants are sprouting through the floorboards and spreading fast and nearby a brook has appeared and is in full flow with animal sidekicks!

Our window onto this changing world is through little old lady Moll (played by Anna Calder-Marshall).  A feisty pensioner with a dislike of ‘the fat’ that hover around the coffee shops on the street below, a wicked joke en route to completion about hen parties and an absolute belief in the power of Ocado.  Moll thinks she’s going on holiday and from the outset it’s clear that her trip is far more urgent.  Hardy and Manz, her neighbours/friends speak carefully to Moll, (we never really learn why they have such need, or guilt, to ensure Moll is looked after, and why this loyalty flickers away so quickly).  They create their own story of a temporary trip out of town while Moll questions why an estate agent has been round, why a couple have come to view the flat.  The characters of Hardy and Manz are particularly interesting in this survival context.  They are polar opposites by sight; one a sensible public schoolboy type; caring and concerned about people, the other a natural survivalist with an angry persona and a gun.  But in this new world neither can strive; even our natural fighter is only capable of catching a single hedgehog.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

As the situation outside worsens our empathy lies with Moll and her unquestioning care for others; including taking in a new family of three (the Plumbs) into her tiny hideaway flat.  The plumb parents (played brilliantly by Nigel Betts and Morag Siller) are very nice but very greedy takers of everything – and providers of nothing; another set of mouths to feed; cowardly, self protective additions to the food chain.  While their son Arthur (played beautifully by actress Polly Frame) has ideals of bravery set somewhere between the world of knights and porn stars, and an unsettling energy for asking a continuous stream of questions that can only heighten the stress of the situation and grate madly on the adults of this world.  All, that is, except Moll, to whom Arthur seems to be the only person to ask about her own past and her own experiences.  They share and that gives them a bond that is strong in this new context in which neither person can be the expect.

The set design by Michael Vale is spectacular and adds a stunning and surprising, visually vivid backdrop to the action as the stage crumbles in front of us under the attack of nature; an absolute highlight was the appearance of a row of flowers dropping from the ceiling as darts with a particularly satisfying thud as they hit the ground and routed in.  Steve Marmion’s directing is, as I’ve come to expect from Anthony Neilson’s ‘Realism’ and Ed Harris’ ‘Mongrel Island’, playful and theatrical.  Never afraid of mixing naturalism with moments of pure abstract performance, which support this surreal script utterly.

The strength in the play lies in the contrast between the surrealism of language and ideas with the darkness of the personal narratives.  The power of friendship and the loyalty at flows with this weakens substantially as the need for survival takes over.  Every character is taken to and accepts the most extreme acts to aid their own survival.  The Ocado man (Bill Fellows) could be seen as the last selfless character standing as he undergoes his dangerous mission to fight his way through the looters and foliage to reach the flat with his saved remnants of Moll’s shopping. And it is the interspersing of hilarious witticisms and descriptions of the surreal world outside that make these darker moments so poignant.  The final moments of the play are heartbreaking and heart-warming all at once as Moll and Arthur share their final cigarette together.  Has care, friendship and loyalty survived this trauma only to be destroyed through the lack of empathy from others?

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